Following an apocalyptic week, with the day the sun never rose followed by two days of settling smoke, restaurants across the Bay Area are struggling. Food businesses are now making day-to-day and even hour-by-hour decisions on whether to keep operating or to temporarily close their doors due to hazardous air quality.
“It’s devastating,” says Gillian Shaw of Black Jet Baking Co. “Again, it’s just another decision that you keep having to make. … It’s a never-ending nightmare of navigating cost, waste, and the right thing to do.”
Sorrel in Pac Heights temporarily shut down outdoor dining. Chef Alex Hong says they were just starting to fill up their parklet this past month, and were looking forward to a full set of reservations on the books this weekend. The restaurant canceled all reservations yesterday, and again tonight, and will make the decision again tomorrow.
The general manager has been on the phone for two days, apologizing to diners and offering to reschedule or deliver a $65 four-course prix fixe. Hong says the menu is a fun and affordable throwback to his pop-up days. But it’s also about half of what Sorrel used to charge in the dining room. “We’ve pivoted to so many different models, trying to figure out how to survive, and how to make it work,” Hong says. “Wildfire season is the cherry on top.”
Señor Sisig is working hard to keep its restaurant in the Mission open to continue feeding the community. “We’re all about people coming by, feeling our vibe, and showing them what we’re all about,” says chef Gil Payumo. “Not just being on your phone, and looking for something to eat.” But the company’s food trucks are up in the air, as the markets where they usually park in Oakland and Daly City are getting canceled two or three days a week.
This impacts staff scheduling, as the restaurant assigns shifts a week out and employees want (and need) those hours. It also makes it impossible to estimate food production, especially in braised meat. One production crew comes in at 4 a.m., and a second at 7:30 a.m., so by the time Payumo’s alarm goes off, he would have already had to make that call the day before. “We’re not putting our heads down,” the chef says. “For anyone waking up to this, we don’t know what the end looks like, when it’s going to get better. But we’re just trying to stay positive and pivot. Pivot is the number-one word for this year.”
At Black Jet in Bernal Heights, Shaw had just cautiously expanded the schedule to Wednesday through Sunday, and now has to sift through more decisions. They baked through the dark on Wednesday, closed early on Thursday, closed entirely today, will open to hand out preorders on Saturday, then close again on Sunday. “There is no plan for next week,” says the baker. “There’s no fuckin’ rest. I’ll be maniacally checking Purple Air.”
She echoed the same staffing challenges, like bringing baristas back, only to send them home. And production challenges: “The bread train never stops,” Shaw says, quoting her lead baker, who feeds the sourdough starter. And then, there’s “the mental and physical toll to make these choices, and having to constantly decide what’s best. The food and the finances are a given, but it’s the constant debate.
“What’s your breaking point? The orange, red, purple language is baffling, and there’s a sense of relief to calling it, and closing for the day. But you still have to make the choice tomorrow, and the next day,” Shaw says.
Wrecking Ball Coffee has temporarily shuttered its cafes for almost a month now. Since August, it’s closed its Cow Hollow cafe five times, and the new location in Berkeley three times. Owner Nicholas Cho estimates the shops have lost $7,000 to $8,000 in sales. But he recognized early on that food businesses were not going to get guidance on how to handle closing due to air quality conditions. The team set up their own protocols: Any time the AQI goes above 150, the baristas make the call on when to close.
“We can’t rely on public officials to tell us what to do,” Cho says. “It would be great to get local and state guidance on how to handle these things. Aside from the AQI tiers, the relevant government bodies should say what’s healthy or not. But we’re taking control of the situation for ourselves and our employees, who are left to fend for themselves.”
Unfortunately, he’s not wrong. During the SF Department of Health’s press conference this morning, Deputy Director Dr. Naveena Bobba told Eater SF that the city has no plans to officially shut outdoor dining down, nor does it have any guidance for restaurants attempting to serve diners outside. “That said, we are urging our San Francisco residents to stay indoors,” she says. “It’s the healthiest thing to do.” She emphasized that if people leave the house, it should be for “essential” activities only, not for a beer or a bite, but acknowledged that “it’s a personal choice” to stay in, not a legal requirement.
For any diners who are still looking to eat out this weekend, keep in mind that most masks that protect against COVID-19 do not protect against the particulate in the air caused by the wildfires. However, if you have a stock of N95 masks with breathing vents that you got during a past fire — yes, the masks you haven’t been able to use because those vents allow you to exhale droplets that can transmit the virus — you can double-bag by putting a bandana over the N95 vent mask. But it’s really best to remain indoors.
Suffice it to say, on bad air quality days, it’s worth checking restaurant websites and social accounts before making a special trip. Town Hall, which just reopened this past week, confirmed it’s closing again due to “horrendously unhealthy air quality levels.” Aziza shut down outdoor dining, but is still offering takeout. Zeitgeist has closed the beer garden two days in a row. The Mill is asking neighbors to drop off N95 masks.
Moreover, it’s worth being extra kind and patient with restaurants this weekend, whether your neighborhood coffee shop unexpectedly closes, you can’t get your usual sticky bun from the corner bakery, your favorite takeout is unavailable, or you lose an outdoor dining reservation. All of these chefs said that most people have been understanding and wonderful, and then there’s always that small percent “who are like, ‘Where the fuck is my latte?’” Shaw says. “And I have to explain, I have 80 loaves of bread I would love to sell.”